Referendums are a bad thing: discuss

From an initial standpoint of relative neutrality, I have come to the conclusion that referendums – at least as practised in the UK – are a bad thing.

In case you think this is because of my views on Brexit, when I was on the losing side, you’d be wrong. I have voted in two other referendums and was on the winning side both times – the original EEC referendum in 1975 (yes, I’m that mature) and of course in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It seems to me that there are at least three problems with UK-style referendums.

First, although the few referendums we have had either across the UK or in its constituent parts have been on what might be called existential issues – big and important questions – they are held entirely at the whim of the prime minister and government of the day. No politician willingly undertakes an exercise that they expect to lose. Our UK referendums are only legislated for if the government of the day believes it will win the vote, and in some cases if the prime minister wishes to lance a political boil in their own party. Harold Wilson did this successfully in 1975, David Cameron unsuccessfully this year.

Good old British pragmatism has its merits but I think this is an example of where it should be tempered by some rule set in legislation. Such a rule would be a lot easier to define if, like Ireland, we had a written constitution and any proposed change to it had to be approved in a referendum. But failing that it should not be beyond the wit of parliament and the best legal brains to come up with a set of criteria to be met before a referendum could be called.

Second, the bar to trigger change in our referendums – a straight majority of those voting – is too low. In the Scottish referendum 55% of voters on a turnout of 85% voted No, so change was irrelevant. In the EU referendum 52% on a turnout of 72% voted Leave. In Scotland the winning side represented 46.7% of the entire electorate. In the EU vote, it represented only 37.5% of the electorate.

These referendums are in effect a one-way street. The vote is always between the status quo and significant change that could not be undone, at least not without huge difficulty. Although the ballot paper has a choice, in essence people are being asked if they want change: the only answers are yes or no. Under our present system, if you can call it that, the issue concerned is always a major one. I think it not unreasonable that half of the adult population (at least the part that can be bothered to register to vote) should vote for that sort of change for it to happen.

That rule would of course have meant no change in both the recent referendums. Ironically, in the case of Scotland it would mean as a unionist I would have to concede separation if Nicola Sturgeon’s talked-of rule of thumb for holding indyref2 – a consistent run of 60% for Yes in opinion polls – were achieved on a turnout of 85% (because 60% of that turnout would represent 51% of the electorate). That would be a bitter pill for me to swallow but if there were to be another referendum it seems to me a fair test of what the population as a whole would want.

There is, you might remind me. a different issue with a second independence referendum – the fact that both UK and Scottish governments signed up to the Edinburgh Agreement for a referendum that would deliver a ‘decisive’ vote (it did) and both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon spoke repeatedly of it being a once in a generation or even lifetime opportunity.

That leads to the third condition I would require, that for a change which fails to gain the approval of 50% of the electorate, I would set a minimum time before the same question could be put to the test in a further referendum. What that time should be would require the wisdom of Solomon but at least five years, the life of a parliament, might have some merit.

A final thought – at present referendums are only ‘advisory’ in the sense that parliament is not required to implement any change voted for. Perhaps, subject to the sorts of suggestions I make here, their implementation should be mandatory, although no government has yet gone against the result of a referendum. Yet.

On balance, I think I far prefer a representative democracy in which our elected politicians take decisions on our behalf and pay the price at the ballot box if we don’t like what they do. But if we are to have referendums, these sorts of changes taken together (you may well have better ones) might reconcile me to their place in our national life. Without them I am afraid I would conclude in any exam question that referendums are indeed a bad thing.

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4 Responses to Referendums are a bad thing: discuss

  1. Geoff Anderson says:

    Whilst agreeing with everything you say, my greatest reason for disliking referendums is that because the predominantly are binary choices they are polarising and divisive with passions inflamed with oversimplified arguments. ill-informed, often unreferenced, opinion on social media and dramatic biased media headlines fuel this division. Referendums become a flurry of abuse led by extreme entrenched opinion from both sides. Because a binary decision as you say tends to invoke major change it inevitably has large consequences for those it benefits and worse often for those it impacts adversely. Accordingly even more reasonable souls get angry fuelling the acrimony.

    My dilemma is how do we get more informed factual debate and consensus building and a media which better serves the debate not its own interests.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric Sinclair says:

    Well argued – I have always felt that referendums we have had in this country leave too much scope for ill-conceived ideas to flourish having been nodded through by a very narrow margin. I am not convinced about the need for a written constitution, but a legal framework around referendums making it impossible for huge constitutional changes to happen without a significant majority (say 5-10%) seems to me to be vital to sustain both sanity and democracy.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Referendums were favoured by Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, De Gaulle. Not a recommendation. They allow demagogues to sway a partially informed public. Richard Dawkins was right (2016) in saying that a decision on as important a question as EU membership should not be ‘left to someone as ignorant as I am’.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sam Duncan says:

    I absolutely agree, although, in my case, I voted Leave. People might contend that the Swiss get along very well with a system based around referendums. But that’s rather the point: as you say, the problem is with them as they’re used here, to determine important all-or-nothing constitutional issues on simple majorities.

    I can’t understand, by the way, why last week’s vote didn’t include a threshold. The Nats have an aversion to them because of the 1979 Assembly vote, but that shouldn’t have stopped the UK government, on something they must have known had a chance of being close.

    “a decision on as important a question as EU membership should not be ‘left to someone as ignorant as I am’.”

    Nice of him to admit it. 🙂 But again, I actually agree. Up to a point. The level of understanding of the European system of government in Britain, and especially Scotland, is lamentable, as the hysterical reaction to the the result has shown. I’ve said often that I’d have been content to lose this referendum if the campaign had led to some improvement in that understanding, because I’m confident that once people learn about it they’ll recognise that it’s something we should have no part in. Of course, because many of the prominent figures in both campaigns are equally as ignorant, it didn’t, but that just highlights the problem.

    Liked by 2 people

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